One might think that the focus of a public art tour is on the material and processes used by the artists to create the pieces seen on the tour. And while that is certainly the case in many places, it's definitely not true with True Tours' Public Art Walking Tour, where the emphasis is on Fort Myers' early history and the behind-the-scenes stories of things gone wrong during the installation of a number of Fort Myers' more than 45 public artworks.
Did you know that there are relics from Gettysburg, Manassas, Fredericksburg and other Civil War battlefields buried downtown? Or that three men made Fort Myers the epicenter of recreational travel in 1914? Or what the letters and words in the light sculpture at the art center say - and why they were incised into the bronze in the first place? It's topics such as these that astonish and entertain folks who take True Tours' River District public art tour.
"One important function of public art is that is helps us remember the lived history of a particular site," notes former University of Florida Director of Art and Art History and Dean of Photography Barbara Jo Revelle. Her 20 foot tall by 100 foot long ceramic tile mural known as Fort Myers: An Alternative History is a classic example of this.
The mural includes stories not told on True Tours' popular historic walking tours about wily Chief Billy Bowlegs and how roughly 150 black Union soldiers saved the fort from being burned down during the Civil War. The mural also pays tribute to the fact that Fort Myers was literally a cow town until the railroad finally crossed the Caloosahatchee in 1904.
And yet, most people who visit the River District, even some who work downtown five days a week, have never laid eyes on the mural, which is tucked away in a paved courtyard off First and Broadway that is shared by Hotel Indigo and the federal courthouse.
Speaking of Fort Myers' origins as a cow town, the city's newest public art piece reminds residents and informs visitors that once upon a time, people had to watch their step as they crossed First Street (called Front back in the day) lest they squish down on a steaming pile of cow manure. You see, until as late as 1908, crackers still drove herds of cattle through town on their way to Punta Rassa, where they were shipped to Cuba in exchange for Spanish doubloons and pieces of eight. Four bronze panels containing imprints of cow hooves will soon be installed in the sidewalk along First (and possibly McGregor) to mark the old cattle trail. And the metal sculpture that sits outside new Fort Myers Regional Library contains replicas of the branding irons used by a number of Fort Myers' early cattle ranchers.
Do you know which ones?
The tour also has a lighter, more humorous side. Are you aware that there's a public artwork that people only see from its unfinished back side? Or that there's a sculpture with a bench that faces the pilings and concrete railings of a bridge rather than the picturesque vista of the Caloosahatchee River? Or why the Civil War soldier in Centennial Park is named Clayton, or who the artist was that served as its model?
The True Tours Public Art Walking Tour is led by arts advocate and journalist Tom Hall. The tour leaves the Franklin Shops at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons or by appointment for larger groups. The tour is going out tomorrow, and there's still time to make reservations. Just call 239-945-0405 or visit www.TrueTours.net.